In Montana, bear country can be anywhere in the western half of the state and sometimes beyond. In recent years, grizzly bears have shown up in prairie habitats east of the Rocky Mountain Front.
For years, elk and deer hunters in western Montana have taken to the woods prepared for a grizzly bear encounter by carrying bear spray, following food storage guidelines and by keeping a watchful eye out for bear sign.
However, with an expanding grizzly bear population into the prairie and agricultural lands in central Montana, bird hunters must now follow suit.
Autumn is the time of year when bears move off seasonal sources of food, such as berries and chokecherries, and start looking for other things to eat. This annual search for food and calories is called hyperphagia, and it’s what bears do in preparation for a long winter’s hibernation.
As bears become more common in prairie creek bottoms and brush rows, encounters with bird hunters become more frequent as well.
Bird hunters should understand they could be in close proximity to bears even if they’re miles away from the Rocky Mountain Front. Hunters should be particularly careful near thick patches of brush and even more so in those thickets along canals and creeks. Grizzlies have even been known to bed in tall grass or cattails but prefer very thick shrubs. Keep a watchful eye on hunting dogs as they may stir-up a grizzly sleeping in its day bed.
If you encounter a grizzly bear while hunting, do NOT run or yell. Running and yelling may provoke an attack. Instead, if you encounter a grizzly bear, speak calmly and back away slowly while preparing whatever form of defense you have. Leave the area immediately.
Most grizzly bear attacks occur during surprise encounters where the grizzly becomes startled and attacks out of self-defense. Avoiding a surprise encounter is the best way to prevent a grizzly bear attack.
Pheasant season starts Oct. 6 and hunters in grizzly bear country should be prepared for an encounter by carrying bear spray and being ready to use it, hunting with a partner, and by always letting someone know where you’ll be. Additionally, just like in the mountains, hunters should look for bear sign and avoid areas where the sign is fresh. If possible, make plenty of noise in areas where visibility is limited, even in areas where you wouldn’t expect bears.
Grizzly bears are currently listed on the Endangered Species List in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which includes the Rocky Mountain Front and points further east. Though the population in the NCDE has reached recovery goals, the federal delisting process for the population is just getting underway.
With the federal protections in place, FWP coordinates all bear management activities with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.